Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr WattersonSynopsis: Nearly two decades after the last original “Calvin and Hobbes” was published, this documentary examines the comic strip’s enduring legacy. Fans and cartoonists such as Berke Breathed of “Bloom County” discuss the strip’s impact and timeless appeal.

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Dear Mr. Watterson  7.75

eyelights: Calvin and Hobbes. the production quality. the wealth of interviews subjects.
eyesores: its traditional structure.

I’m a huge, huge fan of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’. Although, with the demise of the newspaper funnies page in my neck of the woods, I haven’t really encountered many new strips in decades, it remains one of my top favourites, along with ‘Non Sequitur’.

I still remember eagerly awaiting the arrival of the daily paper so that I could read the next ‘C+H’ strip. I read the whole page (aside for Doonsbury, which I found boring) back then, but Bill Watterson’s creation was, by far, the standout of the lot.

Calvin was mischievous but smart, merely possessed of a child’s overactive imagination and an outsider’s perspective on humanity. And he had Hobbes around as his moral compass – not that Hobbes wasn’t up to mischief from time to time as well.

I’ve rarely laughed as hard as I did reading ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, and as consistently. And when I didn’t, I was usually in awe of the story being told and/or Watterson’s tremendous artwork. It was a rich strip on so many levels; there was always something of note.

I liked Watterson’s creation so much that I even had one of the Sunday strips reproduced and laminated for my office wall: it shows some office staff going about their business, having a regular day at the office before being showered with bullets.

Then we find rifle-toting deer walking in from the elevator, complimenting each other on their marksmanship and taking pictures with their trophy. We soon discover Calvin reading an essay in class, discussing human overpopulation to great alarm.

It’s extremely clever, because it doesn’t just discuss this important issue, it also forces us to empathize with wild animals, who are subjected to exactly this type of culling. We now see them just going about their daily lives, and suffering from human actions.

AND it finishes with a punchline.

Although it may seem grotesque at first glance, this strip actually manages to make one reflect, feel, and laugh all in one strip. And yet it’s brilliant in its simplicity. This is the genius that made ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ so consistently entertaining.

Yes, past tense.

In 1995, after ten years of writing and drawing his strip (nearly) daily, Watterson decided to retire it. It was one of the more popular strips of its time, being run in a couple of thousand newspapers worldwide, but he ended it for creative reasons anyway.

I remember the disappointment I felt when he decided to pull the plug. But we should have all seen this coming: Watterson had recently taken a couple of extended absences from the strip. At the very least we were partly prepared for the absence of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’.

But we never expected Watterson to disappear altogether.

Since 1995, Watterson has eschewed his public life. He was already very private, but he left the business altogether, doing some painting and just enjoying personal time. He says that he does not regret ending the strip when he did, before it got tired.

In 2007, ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ fan Joel Allen Schroeder did a series of interviews with other fans in an attempt to understand the cultural impact of the strip. By 2009, he had launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary on the subject.

That movie is ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’.

Released in 2013, it is the summation of Schroeder’s many years of research and hard work. It features interviews with a bevy of Watterson’s peers, industry people, critics, celebrities (ex: Seth Green) and even a webmaster, authors and archivists devoted to ‘Calvin and Hobbes’.

Narrated by Schroeder himself (who also bookended the piece with a personal touch), the documentary is more than just a collection of tributes by all these devotees, it also explores the roots of Watterson’s craft, the history of ‘C+H’, and the impact it’s had on pop culture.

There’s a visit to Chagrin Falls, where Watterson is from, and which features in his books, which led to a brief exploration of his early strips in newspapers and advertisements – after which his influences (such as ‘Pogo’, ‘Peanuts’, ‘Krazy Kat’ and ‘Little Nemo’) are analyzed.

Watterson’s avoidance of fame and fans is also discussed; even as his strip was loved the world over, he chose to remain in the shadows. He also felt that the comics should speak for themselves, and refused to license and merchandise ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ for that reason.

This led him to making a speech which was controversial in the comic book world, about the “cheapening of comics”, throwing down the gauntlet with comics creators about selling out their oeuvre, much like the ubiquitous ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Garfield’ – something not everyone agreed on.

Although many other comic strip creators were on hand for ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’, I was especially fond of hearing the from the creators of ‘Foxtrot’, ‘Non Sequitur’ and ‘Bloom County’ – the latter of which felt that no doubt a balance could be struck when licensing strips.

…as he shows off stuffed Bill the Cat and Opus toys to prove his point.

But my favourite of all the “celebrity” interviews was when Piraro (of ‘Bizarro‘ fame) called Watterson the sasquatch of the comic book world; that maybe only three people had ever seen him. It was a rather amusing and fitting assessment of the situation, and it got a few chuckles.

Finally, there’s talk about the shrinking comics page, and how the presentation often isn’t a proper reproduction of the work. There’s a definite sense from most participants that comic strips hit their final peak at the time Watterson showed up, that it would never be the same again.

The style of the film is professional and very pleasing to the eye. There were lots of visuals to embellish it, including strips and interviews inside comic book panels. Heightening the mood was the gorgeous and playful score by We Are Pirates, which is available with the DVD purchase.

(For the record, I’ve played the score a LOT. It’s delightful, if slightly repetitive in some areas.)

I very much liked ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’, and I’m very pleased to have it in my collection. It stumbles out of the gate by showing many of its participants without identifying them, but it quickly makes up for it, allowing us to savour Watterson’s world with so many like-minded individuals.

There is and never will be another strip quite like ‘Calvin and Hobbes’. It’s extremely creative, funny, thought-provoking, humanistic, skillfully-rendered and gorgeous to boot. No doubt many cartoonists will be inspired by it, but few -if any- will ever be able to match its quality and impact.

I will always be grateful for ‘Calvin and Hobbes’. It has peppered my life with so much laughter and has managed to do it with tremendous intelligence and imagination. Anytime I think of this strip there’s an instant smile on my face, and every time I read it, it brightens my day. Little else does that.

Dear Mr. Watterson, thank you.

Post scriptum: I think I need to dust off my complete collection boxed set now…

Nota bene: the DVD and blu-ray also feature nearly two hours of supplemental footage, all edited together in one complete stream. There are some superb interview segments there that fill in the picture even more. The material is so good, actually, that it’s clear that the only reason it was cut out is for time considerations – otherwise the picture would have been three hours long! If you’re remotely a fan of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, do yourself (and the filmmaker) a favour, go buy it!

Date of viewing: April 14, 2015

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